Ricky Ponting's baggy green has spent the last few days undergoing emergency repairs; 117 Tests' (it is actually his second cap) worth of blood, sweat, toil and perhaps even a tear or two have taken their toll. After a 45-minute operation by the same seamstress who once performed a rescue act on Steve Waugh's cap, it will be returned to Australia's captain in time for the start of the final Test of their season in Hobart tonight.
Victory against Pakistan will complete a clean sweep of the series and make it five wins out of six for the Australian summer. All then is well Down Under and when Ponting leads his men out for their next Test on home soil, the opening game of next winter's Ashes, it will be at the head of a revitalised side capable of recapturing the urn. Except that theory is riddled with more holes than the skipper's cap (pre-surgery of course). Australia are in need of patching up.
At the end of last month, Ponting became the most successful captain in Test history, indeed no player has ever featured in as many victorious Test teams. He has since added one more with victory in the second Test against Pakistan in Sydney, perhaps the most remarkable of his tenure. Midway through that game, with Australia in a seemingly impossible position, attention had focused on the captain: his lack of form in particular. Victory, for which Ponting the skipper has to take a chunk of credit, allowed the failings of this side to be glossed over, but the faultlines are there, and Australia remain all too aware of them. If they lose in Hobart they slip below Sri Lanka to No 4 in the world rankings.
"I think there's probably a few guys who feel they could do a little better personally," admitted Tim Nielsen, Australia's coach, on the eve of the final Test. Ponting is one of them. His form this Australian summer has been poor, an average of 27 leaves him looking up at Peter Siddle and follows on from a 2009 that featured a lonely Test hundred and had him well short of the level that has him as one of the best the game has ever seen. The trend goes back further. Ponting's record over the last three years – since his Test average peaked at 59.99 during the annihilation of England on their last trip Down Under – has been one of diminishing returns; Alastair Cook and Daniel Vettori average more than him over that period.
"If the day comes where I think there is someone better in the order to bat at No 3 than myself, then by all means I will give it some thought, but I still think I'm the best equipped to be batting at No 3 in the Test side," said Ponting in Hobart as he contemplates his worst Test home summer in over a decade.
It remains next to impossible to imagine anyone other than Ponting striding out alongside Andrew Strauss to toss up at the Gabba in 10 months, or indeed anyone else striding out at the fall of the first Australian wicket. But his toil at the crease, admittedly not helped of late by an elbow injury sustained against West Indies before Christmas, is placing greater pressure on a batting order that is struggling to deliver with any consistency.
Michael Clarke has not reached three figures this Antipodean summer, while Marcus North has become something of a walking wicket, averaging in the low 20s against Pakistan and West Indies. "We must keep it in perspective," said Nielsen. "It was only a couple of months ago that Marcus had three centuries in five Tests. He's having a bit of a dip in form. It happens in our game, different players go through rough trots."
Michael Hussey bears that out. It is only a matter of weeks since Shane Warne said that he was on his last legs. The 34-year-old – with the creditable assistance of Shane Watson, a success as a reinvented opener – has since carried the batting against Pakistan, although he was dropped three times in his pivotal century in Sydney.
The attack too appears over reliant on the mercurial Mitchell Johnson, who has refound his Test legs since the Ashes. Siddle has taken six wickets in the two series, while Nathan Hauritz, the match-winner in Sydney, is, to put it bluntly, not in Graeme Swann's class.
The sense of an Australian side some leagues beneath the frightening standards of decades gone by is only heightened by the quality of the opponents they have laboured past this season. West Indies featured a core of players few outside their own islands would have recognised, while Pakistan were fortunate not to be beaten in New Zealand before they arrived in Australia.
"We're only a young side and obviously there can be inconsistencies but we're starting to form our own identity a bit. We're starting to believe that we do belong in Test cricket." So said Brad Haddin yesterday, striking a note that could not sound more un-Australian. If the cap fits...
Summer Down Under: Aussies' average form
Batting v West Indies & Pakistan
S R Watson 5/579/72.37
M E K Hussey 5/483/60.37
S M Katich 4/402/57.42
M J Clarke 5/298/42.57
B J Haddin 5/246/41.00
N M Hauritz 5/188/31.33
P M Siddle 4/59/29.50
R T Ponting 5/216/27.00
M J North 5/186/23.25
Bowling v West Indies & Pakistan
D E Bollinger 4/24/18.91
M G Johnson 5/28/23.21
S R Watson 5/11/25.54
N M Hauritz 5/23/28.34
P M Siddle 4/6/68.33